Amanda Lindhout: Forgiving Her Somali Torturers

Every once in a while, I like to share an inspiring forgiveness story in these “Course Meets World” pieces. Recently, a friend passed on another of these amazing stories: the account of Amanda Lindhout, who was captured and tortured by a Somali militia but survived her ordeal through love, forgiveness, and discovering her special function of helping the Somali people find a better way. Her story is one more example of the power of healing love to transform lives.

I learned more about Lindhout’s story through several news reports, especially stories from the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Star, from which I draw the quotes below. Lindhout, a Canadian journalist, was riveted by accounts of the suffering in lawless, war-torn Somalia, a nation without a functioning government since 1991. So, in 2008, she decided to go there herself to cover a story she felt wasn’t being told. She knew Somalia was a dangerous place, so she took many precautions to ensure her safety, including hiring security. Nonetheless, only three days into her trip, she and her colleague Nigel Brennan of Australia were kidnapped by a band of Somali militiamen.

Thus began a brutal ordeal that lasted 460 days. Lindhout won’t share the details of the ordeal in interviews. But reports of what happened when she and Brennan were held hostage are truly harrowing. According to these reports, they were chained, beaten, and tortured. The Star account gives the following description of Lindhout before she was released:

An emaciated Amanda Lindhout was locked in an animal shed, with chains around her ankles, desperately clinging to hope after being beaten, tortured and held captive for 15 months in Somalia. She was so badly malnourished that her toe nails and much of her hair had fallen out.

It has also been reported in the Somali press that Lindhout was forced to “marry” one of her captors, and that she bore his child. The nightmare ended only when the families of the two captives paid a $600,000 ransom to secure their release.

What Lindhout does want to share is how she survived the experience and what she has learned from it. Several factors helped her to survive. First, her memories of what she left behind, “memories of home, my family, friends, Canada.” Second, her dreams for the future, “the dreams of what I could do with my life if I made it out of that very difficult situation alive.”

More specifically, she says, “I dreamed about what I could do to make Somalia a better place if I made it out.” For in spite of her brutal treatment by the militiamen, in the days before her capture she had been deeply moved by the strength and kindness of the Somali people, especially the women:

On our second day in the country, we visited a World Food Program feeding centre that was serving 8,000 people per day. These are people completely dependent on food aid, thousands of people lining up in the scorching sun to receive a small cup of porridge, with war a few kilometres away. The women are waiting patiently, not hustling to get to the front of the line. Yet they have smiles on their faces, and the women are offering some of their food to me.

Their day-to-day life is such a struggle that I found it incredibly admirable how they persevered and had great optimism about their future. It had a really profound effect on me and even now it moves me almost to tears.

Lindhout also realized that the teenage boys who had captured her (one was only fourteen years old) were, to a significant extent, products of a “culture of war.” Yes, their decision to kidnap and torture was wrong, and they were personally responsible for what they did. But these were young men who had never known anything but war. Opportunities for education, meaningful work, and participation in civil society were not available to them. They had few options other than joining militia groups. “They are rewarded for violence.”

So, even as she was being held hostage, plans for how she could help the Somali people began to form in her mind. In part inspired by a Somali woman who had risked her life to help her, Lindhout decided to focus on educating women and girls – “not because women are more deserving of education but because, as few opportunities as the men have, women in Somalia have fewer.” As the days passed, her calling became clearer and clearer: “I spent countless hours locked up in a dark room imagining how the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program would be created. I had played it out in my mind. It was a very positive way to focus my energy….I [now] know very deeply that this is my life’s work.”

Indeed, once she returned home, she hit the ground running and turned her dreams into a reality. It is truly staggering to me what she has accomplished in just a few years. Just four months after returning to Canada, she created the Global Enrichment Foundation, the mission of which is “to create female leaders through university scholarships, micro-loans and community-based workshops.” A part of this venture is the aforementioned Somali Women’s Scholarship Program, which provides full university scholarships to Somali women “who have a vision for the future of Somalia.” A new program offers a series of free workshops for Somali women to give them “the tools they need to break free from limiting belief patterns and the societal conditioning that has oppressed them.” These workshops, which are culturally sensitive and geared toward meeting needs the women themselves have deemed important, cover diverse topics such as “peace-building, conflict resolution, advocacy and women’s health issues.”

These programs have already had an impact. Indeed, Lindhout says she is most proud when she receives correspondence from women in Somalia whom her programs have helped to send to university. “I am so inspired. These women, in spite of the odds stacked against them, have very specific plans and dreams of how they can create change in Somalia.”

But what about those young men who took her hostage? How would they benefit from all this? Through the uplift of their community that these educated women would bring. In an interview for Canadian television, Lindhout wonders how the lives of those young men would have been different if their mothers had been educated women. “When you’re educating the woman, you’re educating the whole family.” This reminds me of an African proverb often cited by Greg Mortenson, who has dedicated his life to educating women and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan: “Educate a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community.” Mortenson explains further in his bestselling book Three Cups of Tea:

Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities, but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture…the answer is to educate girls. (p. 209)

Lindhout now does a lot of public speaking, not just about improving the lives of people in Somalia, but about how each of us can find our own particular passion, our own calling. “We all have something that speaks to us,” she says. “My goal is to inspire people to understand that you have an opportunity to create positive change in this world if you step into it and identify your passion.” It can be overwhelming to contemplate the many problems of the world. But if each of us can find the way of serving that speaks to us and step into it fully, we can transform our lives as well as the lives of those we serve.

As I mentioned, Lindhout’s discovery of her “life’s work” of serving the Somali people helped her survive her ordeal. But there was one more element that enabled her to survive, a element so vital that she says sharing it has become “the other half of my life’s work.” As you may have guessed from the title of this piece, I am speaking of forgiveness. In the midst of her suffering, Lindhout discovered that forgiving her captors was not just a “good” or “noble” thing to do. It was literally a matter of life or death:

I started the forgiveness process while I was in Somalia, on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. When there’s so much happening that you need to forgive, it almost becomes life or death. You either find a way to let go of it on a very deep level or it becomes very difficult to survive.

When your reality is that you’re being abused in a multitude of ways and being starved and literally in chains in the dark, there are days that are quite hopeless and in order to survive you have to find ways to let go of the anger and bitterness that have completely taken you over. Because if you just sit with those emotions for too long, I don’t know if a person can survive that intact.

What did that forgiveness look like? She doesn’t share a lot of details, but what she does say sounds a lot like the kind of forgiveness taught in A Course in Miracles. It wasn’t simply the decision to charitably let her vicious captors off the hook for their vile deeds, but a decision to see beyond those deeds to the love that was and is the true essence of every human being. This brought her a deep peace that sustained her in the face of seeming terror:

In the extreme depths of suffering, you really find what you need to sustain you. I have experienced the resilience of the human spirit. If the feeling of peace comes when we realize that all human beings are made of love, that is when fear is gone and you can move more easily into a peaceful state.

After she returned to Canada, the process of forgiveness continued, as it does to this day. (She has also been seeing a psychotherapist regularly.) “Sometimes, you have to make the choice to forgive 10 times a day when you have these pockets of anger come up. That’s a lot of work, but to me it’s worthwhile.” Not surprisingly, there are those among her friends and family who harbor intense anger toward her captors, and she faces the temptation to commiserate with them. She has chosen, however, to turn away from anger:

I chose the opposite, to continue to engage in the forgiveness, though now I had the freedom and luxury of choosing to go the other way, as my life wasn’t in danger anymore. It’s not easy – it’s a choice I have to make every day when I wake up in the morning, not to be trapped by the past. If that’s what I want to choose, then I must forgive.

What a beautiful story! So much could be said about it. But what jumps out at me most as I contemplate Lindhout’s experience is how her forgiveness of her captors came hand in hand with a calling to be of loving service to them – what the Course would call her special function.

This seems important to me, because it highlights the interpersonal nature of forgiveness. When I hear talk about forgiveness, the impression I often get is that forgiveness is just about letting go of your resentments in your own mind so you can be at peace. Not much is said about the person being forgiven. At a church service I attended, I even heard a prominent teacher of forgiveness say, “Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person.” It’s all about what’s going on in your own mind. The other person might as well not even be there.

Now of course, inner peace is indeed a precious benefit of true forgiveness. Lindhout speaks movingly about how her forgiveness of her captors helped her let go of anger and find the peace she needed to survive her captivity. But as the Course says, and as her example makes so clear, it is also about the people you are forgiving. It is about lifting their burden of guilt by seeing the love that is their true nature. And it is about communicating that vision to them by expressing your forgiving love to them in whatever manner will best serve God’s plan for salvation. For Lindhout, this has taken the form of a holy calling to serve her sisters and brothers in Somalia. She has been called to bless her captors through doing her part to transform the society that influenced them to capture her – to turn a war zone into a place of peace.

So, whom do you need to forgive? How can you be truly helpful to those whom you need to forgive? In the end, these two questions are really one. May we all follow Amanda Lindhout’s inspiring example when we are seemingly “taken hostage” in the much less extreme ways we experience every day. In the midst of the seeming painful ordeals inflicted upon us by what feels like a cruel world, may we discover our unique calling, the special form each of us has been given to extend our forgiving love to our “captors.”
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